“O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” Nehemiah 1:11 ESV
About thirteen years after Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, Nehemiah, the son of Hacaliah, receives a troubling report: “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” (1:3) For us, who have just finished walking through the Book of Ezra expositionally, we may be tempted to despair and think, “Not again!” We had seen the providence of God as he sovereignly brought his people back to Jerusalem, warded off opposition, revived the people’s apathy, and led them to reclaim the land and rebuild their temple. And just a few years later, they’re in trouble again.
We can learn from Nehemiah’s reaction to this news in much the same way as we did from Ezra’s reaction. First, Nehemiah identifies himself with the burden of his people. He mourns. He prays. This intercession is significant because Nehemiah wasn’t in Jerusalem, but in Susa, the winter home of the king of Persia. Nehemiah was the king’s cupbearer – a very prominent position. Yet, his distance from Jerusalem and his standing in a royal class did not keep him unaffected from the burdens of his brethren in trouble.
Second, Nehemiah displays trust in the covenant-keeping God to whom he prays. While the idea of the city of God’s people crumbling is certainly not one to inspire joy, Nehemiah knows that God is still in control and he hears and answers prayer. He confesses the sins of the people. He praises God. He extols his name. He has hope.
Finally, Nehemiah remembers. He not only remembers what God has promised his people in scripture, he also calls God to remember his word given to Moses. Indeed, that very word promised that God’s people will be scattered through their disobedience, but that word also promised that God would bring his people back through repentance. And Nehemiah knew that nothing could stop God’s redemption of his people.
The history of God’s people recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah may look bleak if we only focus on the sins of the people, the consequences, and opposition from the world. Indeed, it should grieve us when God’s people are under attack from within and without. However, this reality is not all there is. Even today, God’s people are suffering. Like Nehemiah, we can bear their burdens and pray for them even if we are geographically distant. Moreover, God may call us to go and help, like Nehemiah desired to do. Either way, we are called to identify with the struggles of our brothers and sisters, remembering those in bonds, and interceding before the God who remembers his word and keeps his promises. Keep your eyes on the One who overcomes the world!